Once you reach senior high, a lot of things seem to change. You’ll notice that you’re suddenly expected to be more responsible. Conversations will now always seem to involve college, and your plans for the future. With all this, you’ll likely hear the word “undergraduate” being thrown around a lot. But what exactly does it mean? What is an undergraduate degree, and why is it such a significant part of the discussion about your future? 

In this article, we’ll explore key information about undergraduate degrees to help you make a more informed decision about the road ahead. 

An undergraduate degree refers to the initial level of post-secondary education, usually pursued after completing high school or its equivalent. Students pursuing these degrees are usually referred to as undergraduates, or ‘undergrads’ for short. Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are the two types of undergraduate degrees.

Why is it Called an Undergraduate Degree?

To understand why it’s called an undergraduate degree, you’ll need to first understand what a graduate degree means. Graduate education represents a higher level of academic achievement, beyond the undergraduate level. Graduate degrees, such as master’s and doctorate degrees, dive deeper into specific areas of study and often require advanced research, coursework, and practical experience. 

The term “graduate” comes from the Medieval Latin graduārī, which means “to receive a degree.” It can be traced back to the Latin word gradus, meaning “a step.” When you graduate, it means you’ve completed another step of your education.

Degrees that are a step below the graduate level are thus called under-graduate programs.

Undergraduate and graduate degrees are different levels of academic achievement with distinct requirements. 

Undergraduate degrees are typically the first step in a student’s educational journey, providing a broad overview of a field, while graduate degrees allow students to specialize in a particular area and gain deeper insights into the subject. 

In most cases, you’ll need to complete undergraduate education before you can pursue a graduate degree. 

Here is a table highlighting the key differences between undergraduate vs. graduate degrees:

Typical Academic FocusBroad overview of a fieldSpecialization in a particular area
DepthFundamental knowledgeAdvanced knowledge and expertise
Typical Cost Less expensive per credit

Associate Degree: 60 credits

Bachelor’s Degree: 120 credits 
More expensive per credit 

Master’s Degree: 30-60 credits
Typical RequirementsHigh school diploma or equivalentRelevant undergraduate degrees
(a few schools may accept students with other relevant experience)
ExamplesAssociate degrees, Bachelor’s degreesMaster’s degrees, Doctorate degrees

Undergraduate degrees are typically divided into two broad categories: associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Today, there are many specialized programs at the undergraduate level, designed to help students like you build the relevant skills and knowledge needed to transition from high school to the professional world. Here are the main types of undergraduate degrees you can opt for after completing high school:

  1. Associate Degrees
    • Associate of Arts (AA)
    • Associate of Science (AS)
    • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  2. Bachelor’s Degrees
    • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
    • Bachelor of Science (BS)
    • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
    • Specialized Bachelor’s Degrees
      (eg: B.Arch, which is a Bachelor of Architecture)
  3. Undergraduate Certificates / Diplomas

Associate Degrees

Associate degrees typically require about two years of full-time study and are offered by community colleges, technical schools, and some universities. They provide foundational knowledge in a specific field and are available in various disciplines. The Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees focus on liberal arts and sciences, respectively, while the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree emphasizes practical skills for specific careers.

Related: Differences Between AA, AAS, and AS Degrees 

Bachelor’s Degrees

Bachelor’s degrees are four-year undergraduate programs offered by colleges and universities. They provide in-depth education in a chosen field of study, and typically include a broader range of courses compared to associate degrees. Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees are the most common, but there are also specialized degrees such as the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS), Bachelor of Architecture (B. Arch), etc. There are also Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degrees for students interested in pursuing fine arts such as painting, theater, dance, etc. 

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree continues to increase steadily.  

Related: B.A. Vs. B.S. – Which Should You Choose?

bachelor's degree

Differences Between a Bachelor’s and an Associate’s Degree

AspectsBachelor’s DegreeAssociate Degree
Typical Duration4 years2 years
Typical Tuition FeeHigherLower
Depth of StudyMore intensiveBasic working knowledge
Employment and SalaryBetter employment opportunities and higher salary potentialSomewhat limited job opportunities and lower salary potential
Typical Admission RequirementsHigh school transcripts, SAT/ACT test scores, personal essays, application feesHigh school transcripts, SAT/ACT test scores, application fees (optional for some programs)

Bachelor’s degrees typically take 4 years to complete, with higher tuition fees, offering more intensive study and leading to better job prospects and higher salaries. In contrast, associate degrees typically take 2 years, have lower tuition fees, provide basic knowledge, offer somewhat limited job opportunities, and have simpler admission requirements.

Undergraduate Certificates / Diplomas

Besides degrees, many schools also offer certificate and diploma programs at this level. Undergraduate certificates and diplomas are shorter programs that focus on specific skills or areas of study. They are typically completed in less than two years and are usually offered by community colleges and vocational schools. These programs provide specialized training in fields such as healthcare, technology, business, or the arts, and are designed to prepare students for entry-level positions or further education. 

Undergraduate diploma certificate

An undergraduate degree can open up numerous opportunities for personal and professional growth. Here are some compelling reasons why pursuing an undergraduate degree is worth considering:

Higher Earning Potential
Statistics consistently show that individuals with bachelor’s degrees earn higher salaries on average compared to those with only a high school diploma. In 2021, the median earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree were 55% higher than the earnings of those who only completed high school. Individuals with a college degree also see lower unemployment rates than their counterparts without degrees. Investing in an undergraduate degree can lead to greater financial stability and long-term earning potential over your lifetime.

Expanded Knowledge Base
An undergraduate degree exposes you to a wide range of subjects and disciplines, allowing you to explore new areas of interest and expand your knowledge beyond high school.

Career Advancement
A bachelor’s degree is increasingly becoming a minimum requirement for many entry-level positions across various industries. Earning an undergraduate degree can significantly enhance your job prospects and open doors to higher-paying roles with better career advancement opportunities.

Skill Development
Undergraduate programs are designed to equip students with essential skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork, which are highly valued by employers in today’s competitive job market.

Personal Growth
Pursuing an undergraduate degree challenges you to think critically, adapt to new situations, and develop a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. It fosters personal growth and prepares you to navigate life’s complexities with confidence.

Networking Opportunities
College provides a unique environment for networking and building connections with peers, professors, and professionals in your field of interest. These connections can be invaluable for future career opportunities, mentorship, and personal development.

In summary, pursuing an undergraduate degree offers numerous benefits, including expanded knowledge, career advancement, skill development, personal growth, networking opportunities, higher earning potential, and increased flexibility. It lays a solid foundation for success in both your personal and professional endeavors, making it a worthwhile investment in your future.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)’ Fast Facts are a handy resource if you’re looking for quick information on how much an undergrad degree will cost you. 

The average total cost of an undergraduate degree differs based on the institution and program you enroll in. The table below shows the average tuition costs for undergrad programs in the academic year 2021-2022.

Average tuition and fees (per academic year) of degree-granting institutions for first-time, full-time undergraduate students, by level and type of institution

4-year institutions2021–22 Costs*
Private nonprofit$38,768
Private for-profit$17,825
2-year institutions2021–22 Costs*
Private nonprofit$17,735
Private for-profit$15,637

*average total costs for the single academic year 2021-22

Understanding the factors that influence the cost of an undergraduate degree is crucial for making informed decisions about your education. Several key factors can impact the overall cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree:

1. Type of School

Public vs. Private Institutions:
Public universities generally have lower tuition rates compared to private universities. Institutions that are public receive funding from state governments, which helps offset the cost for in-state residents. Private universities rely more heavily on tuition and private donations, resulting in higher tuition fees.

For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Institutions: 
Nonprofit universities typically have a higher upfront cost but may offer more financial aid opportunities and scholarships. For-profit institutions often have higher tuition rates than public colleges, but lower rates than private nonprofit institutions’ sticker prices. Both can qualify for federal financial aid and may offer other financial aid assistance.

2. Type of Program

Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degrees:
Associate degree programs are generally more affordable than bachelor’s degree programs. They require fewer credits to complete and typically have lower tuition rates. The same goes for undergrad certificates and diploma programs. However, bachelor’s degree programs provide a more comprehensive education and may offer higher earning potential in the long run. It ultimately depends on your career objectives and budget.

3. Format

Online vs. Offline vs. Hybrid: 

Online programs often have lower tuition rates compared to traditional on-campus programs. Students studying online can save on costs associated with commuting, housing, and campus fees. Hybrid programs, which combine online and on-campus components, may have varying tuition rates depending on the proportion of online and offline instruction.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: 

Part-time enrollment allows students to spread out their coursework over a longer period, which can reduce the immediate financial burden. However, part-time students may end up paying more in the long run due to additional fees and a higher overall cost per credit hour.

Related: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Classes

4. Transfer Credits

The ability to transfer credits from previous coursework or from a community college can significantly impact the total cost of obtaining a degree. Students who can transfer credits may be able to complete their degree requirements more quickly and at a lower overall cost.

5. Location

The cost of living in the area where the school is located can affect the overall cost of attendance. Schools located in urban areas or high-cost-of-living regions may have higher tuition rates and living expenses compared to schools in rural or suburban areas.

6. Financial Aid and Scholarships

Availability of financial aid, scholarships, and grants can greatly reduce the out-of-pocket cost of attending college. You should explore all available financial aid options to help offset tuition expenses and minimize your student loan debt. Filling out the FAFSA is important. There may be multiple forms of financial aid available to you that you may not be aware of. It’s worth taking the time to look for financial aid options, such as grants, scholarships, and more, to help make college more affordable. 

Considering these factors can help students and their families make informed decisions about where to pursue their undergraduate education and how to manage the associated costs. By carefully weighing the cost and benefits of different options, students can choose the path that best aligns with their academic and financial goals.

Understanding what an undergraduate degree entails is essential for students navigating their educational journey. These degrees are typically the first academic step after high school, preparing you for life in the real world. There are a lot of paths to choose from, so making the right decision requires time and a fair amount of research.

By recognizing the value of an undergraduate degree and exploring the various options available, you can make informed decisions about your education and career goals. With dedication, perseverance, and a clear understanding of these goals, you can maximize the benefits of your undergraduate experience and set yourself up for success–no matter which field you choose. 

Can I pursue an undergraduate degree online?

Absolutely! Many universities offer online undergraduate degree programs, providing flexibility for students to balance their studies with other commitments.

Are undergraduate degrees only available in traditional fields of study?

No, undergraduate degrees are offered in diverse fields ranging from liberal arts and sciences to business, healthcare, and niche areas like avionics, cosmetology, and the arts, providing opportunities for students to pursue their passions and interests.

Can I transfer credits earned from an associate degree to a bachelor’s program?

Yes, many colleges and universities accept transfer credits from accredited institutions, allowing students to apply previous coursework toward their bachelor’s degree requirements.